Sunday, July 1, 2007

Was Benjamin born before or after Joseph was sold into slavery?

Someone asked me this question one day. I thought I knew the answer. I was not so sure after reading the relevant passages in Genesis. If you liked On Which Day of the Week Did Christ Die?, you will like this Bible timeline brain twister.

I had always assumed that Benjamin was born (Genesis 35:16-20) first because it appears in the text before the account of Joseph being sold into slavery (Genesis 37:12-28). One must be cautious about making such assumptions, however, as the following example demonstrates.

The death of Isaac (Genesis 35:27-29), which appears just a few verses after the birth of Benjamin, definitely happened long after Joseph was sold into slavery. Isaac was 60 years old when Jacob was born (Genesis 25:26). This would put Jacob at 120 years old when Isaac died at 180 (Genesis 35:28). But Jacob lived in Egypt for 17 years and lived to be 147 years old (Genesis 47:28). This puts him at 130 when came down to Egypt. But Joseph was in Egypt for more than 20 years before Jacob came. He entered the Pharaoh’s service at age 30 (Genesis 41:46). This was before the 7 years of plenty (Genesis 41:47). Assuming that Joseph was seventeen when he was sold into slavery (Genesis 37:2) and that Jacob came to Egypt (Genesis 46:5-7) well after the seven years of plenty, this puts Isaac’s death at least ten years after Joseph was sold into slavery.

Notice that (Genesis 37:2) says, “This is the account of Jacob.” This seems to indicate that this part of the story is being told from Jacob’s point of view (as he heard it from Joseph after being reunited with him), and may therefore not be in chronologically in order with immediately preceding passages. Notice that this phrase “This is the account of” is used several other times in the book of Genesis (2:4, 5:1, 6:9, 10:1, 11:10, 11:27, 25:12, 25:19, 36:1).

One can examine the geographic references with respect to the events after Jacob left Padan Aram to look for clues to answer this question we are considering. Jacob settled in Shechem, which is in northern Canaan, after leaving Laban (Genesis 33:18, 19). After the unfortunate incident that happened there, he moved on to Bethel (Genesis 35:1), which is much farther south. Then while on the move to Ephrath (Genesis 35:16), which is Bethlehem (Genesis 35:19), Benjamin was born as his mother Rachel was dying (Genesis 35:18). Bethlehem is even further south. They then moved on again to Migdal Eder (I don’t know where that is), where Reuben slept with Bilhah, one of Jacob’s concubines (Genesis 35:21-22a). Notice that Benjamin is listed in the family table (Genesis 35:22b-26a), but is an apparent exception to the phrase “…were born to him in Padan Aram.” (Genesis 35:26b) Jacob then moved on to Hebron, which is even farther south than Bethlehem, which Isaac was (Genesis 35:27). When Jacob went down to Egypt, it only says that he was in Canaan (Genesis 45:25), and that he passed through Beersheba (Genesis 46:1) on the way (it is even further south than Hebron). But Joseph’s brothers were grazing their flocks near Shechem (Genesis 37:12) and Dothan (Genesis 37:17) at the time that Joseph was sold into slavery. This is far from Bethlehem, but it is possible that they could have moved back north near there after Benjamin was born.
The Bible says that “Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age…” (Genesis 37:3) This statement could be a hint that Benjamin hadn’t been born yet. But Joseph said of his dream, “the sun and the moon and eleven stars bowed down to me.” (Genesis 37:9) It seems from the text that, though this sounds boastful, it was what Joseph had actually dreamed. However, this does not necessarily mean that Benjamin had already been born. The dream was prophetic. Jacob did, however, perceive that the eleven stars represented Joseph’s brothers (Genesis 37:10). It seems like this wouldn’t have made sense to him if Benjamin hadn’t been born (or wasn’t about to be born). Jacob also interpreted the dream to mean that sun and moon represented “your mother and I” (Genesis 37:10). If Benjamin had already been born, then Rachel (Joseph’s mother) would have already died. But Joseph could have been speaking of the resurrection when he said, “then sun and moon …were bowing down to me” or that Jacob interpreted it this way. It is entirely possible that Jacob misinterpreted the meaning of the dream. The NIV study Bible commentary says that “your mother” referred to Leah, who would have assumed the role of their mother when Rachel died. They just assume that Rachel had already died. There is no record that I can see of Jacob, Rachel, or Leah bowing down to Joseph. But the brothers did bow down to him more than once and this presumably included Benjamin in Genesis 43:26.

In (Genesis 43:7), the brothers told their father that “the man” (Joseph) had asked them if they had another brother. But it seems like they were not exactly telling the truth from Genesis 42:13. They are the ones who brought up that “the youngest is now with our father” in defense of the accusation that they were spies. Note that they also lied when then they said, “…and one is no more” referring to Joseph.

What then can we say definitively about the difference in the ages of Joseph and Benjamin? Joseph was born before Jacob had agreed to stay another six years with Laban (Genesis 30:25, 31:28, 29:18, 27). Benjamin was clearly born after this. Benjamin was old enough to eat a meal (Genesis 43:34) when he came to Egypt and Joseph was about 37 years old at that time.

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9 Comments:

At November 19, 2007 at 11:02 AM , Blogger Nancy said...

thanks for your research on this topic...my husband and i were reading bible stories tonight with our kids and we disagreed over "who was youngest?" and when benjamin was born. my husband is a pk, so it's nice to win a biblical bet once in a while. :)

 
At January 8, 2008 at 5:28 PM , Blogger Alex said...

What do you think, please, of Obadiah Shoher's interpretation of the story? (here: samsonblinded.org/blog/genesis-37.htm ) He takes the text literally to prove that the brothers played a practical joke on Yosef rather than intended to murder him or sell him into slavery. His argument seems fairly strong to me, but I'd like to hear other opinions.

 
At January 26, 2009 at 9:19 AM , Blogger M J said...

Thanks for your comment!
I think Rachel might be pregnant again with difficulty due to her old age, when Joseph was sold. That's why Joseph asked only about his father and another brother (437//44:19). He might have thought his mother was still alive.

 
At January 29, 2009 at 4:15 PM , Blogger Matt said...

You mean he might have known that his mother was not still alive. Yes, this seems like a logical, but not conclusive argument that Benjamin was born before Joseph was sold.

 
At March 13, 2009 at 12:32 AM , Blogger Provident 360 said...

Dear Friend,

You make some very interest points about the chronological order of events. You clearly prove that Isaac's death occurred at least ten years after Joseph was sold into slavery. However, I believe Benjamin was born before Joseph was sold into slavery.

Examining the geographic references with respect to the events after Jacob left Padan Aram. Jacob settled in Shechem, central northern Canaan, and moved about 20 miles south to Bethel, and moved about another 20 miles south to Bethlehem. During their move to Bethel, about 15 miles south to Bethlehem, Benjamin was born and Rachel died. After, while living in Migdal-Eder is states that the sons of Jacob were twelve v22. This all happens before Jacob moves to Hebron which happens after Jacob is sold into slavery. In between Jacob living in Migdal-Eder and Hebron, Joseph was sold into slavery.

Keep up the good work.

 
At July 24, 2010 at 10:35 AM , Blogger Bengemima said...

Great article. I was asked the same question, and thought I knew the answer too. Good work.
I am using your post as reference when I teach today - Thanks.

 
At August 25, 2012 at 1:49 PM , Blogger kenzieb said...

Alex,
No. Joseph's brothers were definitely not joking around when they threw him in that pit. They hated him (Genesis 37:8). They hated him because of his dreams, their father's favoritism, and because Joseph, the youngest of them, would receive all of Jacob's possessions (that's what Jacob stated when he gave Joseph the colorful).
They plotted to kill him (Genesis 37:18).

Shoher used some scriptures out of context as well. His argument is not strong.

 
At August 25, 2012 at 1:51 PM , Blogger kenzieb said...

Very interesting, but how would Joseph know of Benjamin and that he was Rachel's son if he wasn't born before Joseph was sold?

 
At September 26, 2012 at 7:17 PM , Blogger Matt said...

Joseph was told about Benjamin by his brothers in Genesis 42:13. I am not aware of any Bible verse definitively showing that Joseph knew of him before this. Nor do I know of any that say definitively that Joseph knew that the child's mother was Rachel. If you know of any such passages, I would be happy to be enlightened.

 

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